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Opinion: Climate grief is a good thing

How last summer's environmental disasters flipped me from despair into action.


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Last summer really sucked.

Across the planet, deadly heat waves, storms, flooding, and wildfires put an exclamation point on the reality of the climate crisis. And I felt it on a local level: In my hometown of Missoula, Mont., smoke from megafires across the West rolled into our valley in early July and lingered for weeks. We canceled our usual camping trips, trail runs, and hikes as I obsessively checked the air quality, hoping for a window where I could at least let the kids play in the backyard.

Then, in August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report. It warned that the world must achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 if we’re to avoid irreversible damage to the planet. Which brought our collective hurtle toward catastrophe into high relief.

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I’ve known and cared about climate change for decades, but the combination of living under that cloud of smoke and science’s most dire warning to date reached me on a new, more emotional level. I found myself awake at 3 a.m., worrying that every summer from now on would be this bad—or worse. Would the air ever be clean enough for my two small kids to experience a bluebird mountain summer? Would those ecosystems even be around when they hit the prime of their lives? It got harder and harder to concentrate at work, as dark thoughts about society’s imminent collapse intruded on my deadlines. Once, talking about climate change with a near-stranger, I burst into tears.

Plenty of us are experiencing climate anxiety, grief, and guilt. It’s terrifying, depressing, and uncomfortable; nobody wants to hang out in that mental space. But as I’ve grappled with my own climate grief over the past months, I’ve come to believe that it’s actually a good thing.

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It took real panic to spur me to action. I used to care about the climate crisis in a kind of detached, helpless way. But last summer’s smoke left me with a pressing sense of responsibility. Since then, my family has committed to biking and busing as much as possible, and we’re shopping for a used electric car. Solar panels are going up on our garage roof. I got involved with a local climate action group, and I’ve taken my kids to three environmental rallies so far. I make regular calls to my Congressional reps. I’m switching my IRA to a fund with zero fossil fuel investments. And I used my influence as deputy editor of this magazine to put the global crisis front and center.

I’m not going to save the world by myself. But taking action has helped me shake off that awful sense of climate paralysis. And we need everybody on board to save the places we all love.

So join me: Don’t sink into denial or despair, but keep the urgency you’re feeling. Use it as fuel to do something, anything, everything you can to fight for a better, more livable future.

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan is a Montana-based journalist, teacher, and OBJ contributor. This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.

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